Step Backwards

After the HEC double-headers in December, we thought that Ulster were virtually guaranteed a knock-out slot, Leinster were pretty much gone, and that Munster had a pretty decent shot at a best runners-up slot. They had 11 points in the bag and had upcoming games against Scottish patsies Embra and flouncing Parisians RM92 at home – both glaring try bonus opportunities.

And the try bonus point is most relevant – 19 points looks like it might not be enough, but 21 will almost certainly do it. They managed to get 4 tries at home to Embra, and looked threatening in Paris first time out. Sure, they didn’t come close to the whitewash against Sarries, but hey, it was Saturday Night Fever in Thomond – who wants tries when you can have penalties slotted between the posts through cold foggy air and the tears of the assembled press box in near-deathly silence?

Here’s a problem though – in the aforementioned early rounds, master orchestra conductor, curer of the lepers and Lion-designate Ronan O’Gara (© Conor George) was playing close-ish to the gainline and looking like he was buying into the Rob Penney Barbarimunster masterplan. In the Saracens double-header, he played a little bit further back – but needs must and the 5 points gained were what was required.

But since then, Rog has drifted further and further back to the point were he was almost 15m behind the gainline in the recent Cardiff workout. Sure, his tactical kicking might have been as pinpoint as ever, but who cares when it’s exactly what the opposition want – Cardiff won their lineouts, kept the ball intelligently and won the match at their leisure. How can Munster score tries if their opponents have the ball?

This followed an inability to get a try-scoring bonus point against Ulster’s 2.5th team – another occasion when O’Gara was nearly stepping on Felix Jones’ toes.

How can Munster expect to score 4 tries in 2 successive games without the ball, and with an outhalf who looks like he is no longer even going through the motions of playing the gameplan his coach wants him to? It’s not all O’Gara’s fault of course, but he has virtually full control over his position on the pitch, and he isn’t attacking the line.

It’s far from a home run that Keatley is of the required quality to be the future of the 10 shirt at Munster, but that’s not necessarily the relevant question to be asking; the only important issue is whether Munster have a better chance of beating Edinburgh by four tries with Keatley or O’Gara at 10.  This isn’t necessarily clear-cut, but Keatley is a quick, strong fly-half with a decent running game, as well as being a strong defender.  Against that, ROG is more experienced, a better place kicker and better kicker from hand.  But with tries the requirement, it might be time to lean towards Keatley.  Such a move would inevitibly be met with a media scrum, and Penney is presumably aware of this.  But it’s time for tough calls.

P.S. amid the lengthy debate about where Penney’s vision is leading Munster, we’d be grateful if pundits were more restrained in their use of the phrase ‘return to core Munster values’.  Shane Horgan has been one of the only pundits to resist temptation to fall back on easy, meaningless platitudes, and pointed out on Off The Ball that the fruitless multi-phase attack that yielded no points late in the Saracens game was proof that Munster have to get away from their old game plan.  Certainly, Munster’s attack is lacking, but stuffing the ball up their collective jumper is not going to get it done.



  1. Manntach

     /  January 9, 2013

    Some excellent points, lads. I agree completely about reactionism amongst the Irish pundit class. For anyone interested in a balanced and sensible view of what Munster should be doing, have a listen to Shaggy on Monday’s Off the Ball.

  2. Johnny

     /  January 9, 2013

    Not even a question that should be asked anymore. ROG has been very poor in most matchs this year and Keatley has looked sharp and dangerous (and very handy at kicking penalties as well I might add).
    Even bigger joke for him still getting Ireland caps.

  3. Yossarian

     /  January 9, 2013

    This idea of “munster values” is driving me mad!kicking the corners and bullying the opposition into coughing up the ball worked with a pack of Lions tourists and internationals (Wallace,POC,Hayes,Quinlan,Flannery) but the current forwards won’t eat into opposition set piece to the same extent. If ROG is subbing in the 6 nations kidney will be leaving Ireland the same way he met Munster,a tired team in need of replacing but without even a sprinkling of youth to fill in the interim.

  4. Yossarian

     /  January 9, 2013

    *should say left Munster

  5. If its tries they’re after, surely Munster should pick the best attacking backline. For me that is 9. Murray, 10. Keatley, 11. Earls, 12. Downey, 13. Laulala, 14. Howlett, 15. Zebo. Hard to see that happening – as much because of IRFU/Kidney dictats as anything.

    Qualification is still likely in Munster’s hands though (unlike Leinster), so you wouldn’t bet against them. Leinster just went to Embra and left with the try bonus after all. Despite their miracle result in Toulon, I just don’t see Racing having the gumption or interest in the H-Cup. With the match being played at Nantes (and presumably a large travelling contingent from the Turks), Sarries will fancy their chances – all the more after the disinterested Racing showing in Brussels. Racing would then come to Thomond with nothing to play for…and we saw what that meant when Leinster went to Paris a couple of years back. Racing fielded a poor team, played like girl scouts and got hammered (as did I in the club tent after the match).

    • Just as importantly the need to pick the right backrow to get the scores. I’d go with O’Mahony, O’Donnell and Coughlan.

      • O’Donnell over O’Callaghan? I guess he is probably the most openside type player Munster have. Still to really “make it” though, no? Coughlan would be one of the first names on the sheet I imagine.

      • DOC2.0 has never played 7 and O’Mahony is still ahead of him at 6. He has done brilliantly this season, especially against Sarries, but tries are need and O’Donnell has really sparked things when he’s played this season; 4 tries from 5 starts. I agree that he hasn’t really burst through and grabbed his place entirely yet but he seems to be improving all the time and is enjoying things as well, by all accounts.

      • I wasn’t referring to DOC2 as a 7. However, the alternative is DOC 6 POM 7, no? I am very much in the POM is not a 7 camp, so you are pushing on an open door here. Be great for Irish rugby if O’Donnell did kick on.

  6. TJ Hooker

     /  January 9, 2013

    I’d go with Stander ahead of O’Donnell in the backrow. Agree completely with this piece re. ROG. But we know it won’t happen. Could it? No, no. Never.

    • Stander isn’t in Munster’s HCup squad so he can’t play.

      • TJ Hooker

         /  January 9, 2013

        Doh! Seems like a strange oversight. O’Donnell it is then.

      • Stander was with registered with another club at the beginning of the HCup season and Munster used their one allowed squad on change to bring in Coughlan for the Dec games. Stander can be added for the knockouts if Munster get there.

  7. I was hoping at the beginning of the season that Penny would be of a mind with Schmidt, to make those horses-for-courses team selections we’ve become used to seeing from Leinster.

    By all means stick with ROG for the Saracens games where things are to be kept tight. But this weekend, in search of tries, against a team as soft centred as Edinburgh (they were like a box of Quality Street against Leinster at the weekend, even Jennings had a run through them) Keatley’s strength and running ability should be used to keep defenders honest and create space. He is also the highest percentage kicker in PRO12 this season.

    For the same reason, I’d have O’Donnell at 7 ahead of Dougall. As well as Dougall has done, O’Donnell’s form with ball in hand as been excellent when he’s been available and he has sparked things for Munster on a few occasions this season.

  8. Tommy Kennedy

     /  January 9, 2013

    Good points again whiff to be fair. Munster’s back row has to be O Mahony, O Donnell and Coughlan for me it is the a good balance.

    The spinning the ball wide never works if you just do it all the time you have to be able to mix it up and Munster can’t mix it up it seems it is either kick kick or pass pass. Still fancy Munster to qualify what ever happens.

    • Thanks Tommy. O’Mahony and Coughlan are certainties, it’s the last one that’s a bit tricky. Lots of candidates, all much of a muchness. O’Donnell’s form is definitely compelling, even if he doesn’t have much experience or pedigree. O’Mahony is very important to making Penney’s gameplan effective, because he’s a superb ball handler and is comfortable far away from the ruck.

      • Tommy Kennedy

         /  January 10, 2013

        O Mahony’s hands are excellent and also as good an option as at the tail of the line out.

  9. pete (buachaill on eirne)

     /  January 9, 2013

    Anyone have a link to against the head, can’t find it on rte player?

  10. Watching from Sydney

     /  January 10, 2013

    What do readers make of the obvious tactic of running in tight knit pods of 2 as seen relentlessly against Ulster. It yielded one try. I think Penney may have succumbed to the players penchant for constantly making close in drives but has insisted that they so it as two men religiously. They are not big enough to do it on their own so taking hits with the weight of 2 men driving through seems to be his compromise. Every team does it but against Ulster there was hardly a pick and drive within 10m of the ruck where it wasn’t employed

  11. Rich

     /  January 11, 2013

    Totally agree with this – although i suspect Penney has learned from his previous coach that Munster’s development will be a work in progress – can you imagine the training session, standing round a few rucking pads saying “Lets have a quick ruck then move it wide” – The shock, disbelief – even disgust on the packs faces, arms folding raising an eyebrow at this foolish successful Kiwi coach. “Thats not how we do things”.

    watching the old hacks play is a prime example, you can t teach an old dog new tricks. Keatley has probably struggled as he is such a good footballer, similar to Madigan, he can play a variey of positions and can slot in, whereas Rog is a 10 – “i don t play no where else boss”. ROG wil start, Keatley on at 60mins, only no moving to 12 like the national team see fit.

    Prediction – DOC to score from a crossfield kick to justify him spending so much time in the wide channels, leaving coaches all over the country pulling their hair out as they know their 2 donkeys in the engine room will be taking turns doing it at the weekend…..

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